The NFL Scouting Combine starts later this week, and the Baltimore Ravens will be there, taking a closer look at the 334 draft prospects who have been invited to the league's largest talent show.
While the Ravens have been preparing for the 2013 draft well before this week, the Combine will provide them with a definitive set of measurables on many players on their board and give them a better idea of who would be a perfect fit for them in the short and long terms.
Here's a breakdown of the Ravens' priorities at the Scouting Combine, as well as three prospects to whom they'll be giving some serious attention.
Stopwatches—the Ravens will need them.
As I said yesterday regarding the Cincinnati Bengals, the Scouting Combine is mainly a massive information-gathering event that occurs conveniently at one place and time, which means there's a lot the Ravens can learn in the coming days.
Height, weight, 40-yard dash times, three-cone drill times, Wonderlic test results and personal one-on-one interviews are among the sources of this information, all designed to build a complete picture of the draft-eligible invitees and cement their appearances (or absences) from teams' big boards.
If the Ravens want to find a wide receiver who runs with a certain quickness, they can see their options. They can closely watch the footwork of safeties in the sterilized environment of the Combine, rather than having to do so by parsing through film and through the notes of their scouting department. Prospects who hang on the margins of their interest can either prove themselves or become even more marginal.
With the Ravens having salary cap issues and a whole slew of free agents they need to consider, the Combine also provides them with the chance to see if they can effectively meet positional needs by going younger, rather than keeping some of their potentially costly veterans.
Though the Ravens likely already have some ideas of what they'd like to do with their impending free agents, what they see out of certain players at the Combine could change those plans.
This is an opportunity for the Ravens to gather all that they need to start narrowing down their list of draft prospects and to prepare to embark on the meatiest part of their pre-draft preparation. They'll learn not just about these soon-to-be players, but also what other teams might be planning for the draft.
It's full-scale NFL reconnaissance.
You can't find the next Ray Lewis at the combine.
While the Ravens might be able to identify a player or two who may be capable of filling the on-field shoes of Ray Lewis or make a run at what Ed Reed has managed to do for the team over his career, they won't be able to pinpoint who will impact the team in the same emotional ways of those two veterans.
Though intangibles are something teams try to suss out at the Scouting Combine by way of interviews, no first-year player is going to garner the trust and respect of their locker room like someone who has been there for years.
The concept of the "next Ray Lewis" is therefore something that takes time. If he's present at this year's Combine and the Ravens ultimately draft him, it's coincidence, really.
Also, the Scouting Combine won't be the only thing to affect their draft strategy. There are a number of uninvited players whom the Ravens will have to take looks at during their pro days and in pre-draft visits, in order to get Combine-style information.
Further, the combine forces players to perform in a vacuum. While there are advantages to this, it still doesn't provide definitive insight as to what these guys will look like on a football field. There are no pads, there is no contact and there isn't 10 other men on their side of the ball with whom they must work in perfect concert.
That can only come from film study and from what the scouts at-large saw over the course of the past college football season (and beyond). The Ravens might be wowed by a seemingly strong linebacker with great footwork this weekend, but in live-action situations he might be continuously manhandled by opposing offensive linemen.
This cannot be learned in Indianapolis this weekend.
The apparently limitless information available at the Combine still only tells one small part of the story.
However, there are clear risks associated with Te'o—for example, the scandal surrounding fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua that calls into question both Te'o's intelligence and character, as well as his poor performance against Alabama in the BCS title game—that will need to be rationalized for him to be worth the Ravens' time.
The process for Te'o to do just that starts with the Combine, considering he skipped the Senior Bowl.
On one hand, Te'o seems like a good fit to play middle linebacker for the Ravens and take over where Ray Lewis left off. And even if he doesn't get that particular job, the Ravens simply do need to add linebackers, especially if they also lose Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe in free agency.
On the other hand, Te'o may not be fast enough or athletic enough to handle full-time coverage duties in the NFL, something he'd need to do as an interior linebacker for Baltimore. His performance in drills will be highly scrutinized this weekend.
The Ravens will have to be convinced of his credibility during the interview process and impressed by how he handles drills in order to continue to be realistically linked to Te'o as the draft approaches.
Though the Baltimore Ravens would likely be interested in Alabama's Barrett Jones at center, it's hard to imagine they wouldn't have a use for him anywhere on the line.
He's capable of playing center, guard or tackle, and with the Ravens needing at least some more depth on the line, and at most a starting center if Matt Birk retires, the versatile Jones should get a lot of attention at the Scouting Combine.
Jones had a foot injury that kept him from playing in the Senior Bowl, and how well it has healed will determine what he does at the Combine and how good he looks doing it.
But his performance in his 2012 season has done a lot to advance his stock, and this weekend shouldn't do much to harm it.
Jones is a potential second-round pick for Baltimore, and if he aces his interviews he might be a serious target after the Combine. His intelligence—he's great at making calls and adjustments at the line—would be a great asset, especially if he's tapped to replace Birk, Bobbie Williams or Bryant McKinnie.
By no means will Jones be the only offensive lineman to whom the Ravens give serious consideration at the Combine—they have too many needs on the line to be focused on just one guy—but he does seem to be a realistic option for them in the second round.
His stock may continue to rise, however, which may necessitate Baltimore trading up if they really want him.
This year's class of draft-eligible safeties is both full of talent and very deep. The Ravens might fall in love with the top prospect, Kenny Vaccaro, but barring something strange happening, they likely have no chance to land him in the first round.
That doesn't mean, however, that they can't find starter-worthy talent in later rounds.
Take Georgia's Bacarri Rambo. WalterFootball.com has Rambo as their sixth-ranked safety heading into the Scouting Combine, but his name is getting hotter, and he might just prove to be a standout when defensive backs take the field for drills on Tuesday.
The issue with Rambo is off-the-field problems involving drugs, which resulted in a four-game suspension at the start of the 2012 season. How he handles discussing the suspension in interviews will do a lot to help or harm his draft stock—potentially as much as his performances in drills.
Safety is a priority position for the Ravens this year. Ed Reed may leave as a free agent, and Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo are also unrestricted free agents, meaning that the Ravens could soon be lacking depth at safety.
It's a position they are likely to address in the draft, and what happens with their free agents will determine in which round they do so.
Rambo could be a third-round option for Baltimore. He knows how to get to the football—he had three interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2012 in just nine games—and could turn into the ball-hawking playmaker that Reed has been for so many years.
It's all about whether or not his personal problems bleed into his NFL career and how much of a risk the Ravens, or any interested team, are willing to take.